On the 13th of April the Netherlands uncovered a Russian operation in The Hague. Multiple newspapers have picked up the story in the last days. The Netherlands expelled the acting agents, who were supposedly GRU officers.

Why wouldn't they charge them in a court if it was so obvious that they tried to hack the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons)?

  • 1
    I assume the question is about legal charges. So this question would probably be better answered on the Law.SE. I am not trying to suppress the question, btw. I just think the reasons for why they were not criminally charged have more to do with local legal regime than with government actions.
    – grovkin
    Commented Oct 7, 2018 at 20:36
  • 3
    @grovkin: The choice whether to press charges or not is definitely a political one. What crimes could have been charged and what evidence would be needed to convict would be a legal question.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 1:36
  • @BenVoight not if the Dutch justice system/judicial system is independent, or even semi-independent, of the political establishment. If, for example, the answer is that they had diplomatic immunity, that would be a legal answer. If they were suspected of espionage, but no criminal acts were committed, that would be a political decision.
    – grovkin
    Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 3:23

2 Answers 2


According to news reports, the four people

travelled to The Hague on diplomatic passports in April

which means that they were protected by diplomatic immunity and couldn’t be charged.

  • 2
    @grovkin: If the US (or the Netherlands) get hold of those men while they don’t have diplomatic status – travelling as tourists next year, say –, they can arrest and charge and sentence them as usual. It’s just that the men aren’t going to leave Russia privately anymore.
    – chirlu
    Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 5:34
  • 6
    @grovkin And while the US has previous history on grabbing people in 3rd countries, abducting people travelling on diplomatic passports leaves your own diplomats (and agents, given that everybody spies) at great risk.
    – origimbo
    Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 6:23
  • 1
    This is simply wrong. Having a diplomatic passport doesn't mean having a diplomatic status and the immunity that it brings.
    – ach
    Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 13:58
  • 3
    @ach Technically correct that diplomatic passports does not imply diplomatic immunity (but diplomatic immunity does imply diplomatic passports), but it's easy to infer that since they arrived together, met immediately with a Russian embassy official, and were expelled from the country when caught, that Russia would extend its agents enough cover to say "yes, these are diplomats with diplomatic immunity." If you can show that they didn't have immunity, you're free to post your own answer. Otherwise you're just being pedantic.
    – C. Helling
    Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 14:20
  • 2
    @chirlu The BBC reports that they were not accredited to the Netherlands. If you're not accredited to a country (or in transit to/from your diplomatic post), you have no immunity. Diplomatic passports mean literally nothing except "this person's home country decided to give them a passport saying 'diplomatic.'"
    – cpast
    Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 17:56

The Dutch national media service also dealt with this question. The head of the Dutch military intelligence service (who conducted the operation against the Russians) says it's standard for them to conduct operations in that way.

More specifically, he is quoted saying the following (in Dutch):

Ik zou het terugkijkend nog steeds niet anders doen omdat mijn inlichtingenoperaties in dit geval gewoon voorgaan. Als ik ze vast had gezet dan had ik het misschien niet kunnen uitvoeren zoals ik het nu heb kunnen doen.

Roughly translated to English:

Looking back, I wouldn't do anything different because my intelligence operations are more important. If I had detained them then I may not have been able to conduct those in the way I have now.

Having read the quote a few times, it is a bit unclear what the part in bold refers back to. My best guess is that it refers back to the intelligence operations. Assuming that is the case, the answer to your question is that it may harm on-going or future operations.

The article also provides some other considerations given by an external lawyer, however, those are not named explicitly by the Dutch security service. Those considerations include the precarious relationship with the Russians (with reference to the downing of MH17) and their diplomatic status.

  • 2
    From my reading of the quote, it seems the Dutch are saying that if they were to charge (instead of expelling) spies on diplomatic passports, then they would not be able to conduct their own intelligence gathering as widely as they have been. Presumably, he is saying that there is an understanding that spies who travel on diplomatic passports are travelling out in the open (as opposed to deep cover ones who embed and try to pass off as natives). Anyone entering a country on such a passport kind of already gives the host country a "heads up" and they can be observed by the host.
    – grovkin
    Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 14:40
  • @grovkin I imagine there are a lot of diplomats in The Hague, so that in itself wouldn't really be suspicious. From what I heard the Dutch were warned by the British that these people were here for other business. It later turned out some of these Russian operators (or rather their mobile devices) also were in some other suspicious locations. See slide 32 here.
    – JJJ
    Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 15:01
  • @grovkin My reading is "If we charge them, I have to show my evidence at a trial and the Russians can learn what we do know, what we do not know, and where did the info come from. If we expel them, I keep my secrets hidden". Not to mention the very real risk that -intelligence work being usually somewhat "grey"- the judge finds the evidence inadmissible on reason of how it was obtained and the Russians end up free.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 19:35
  • @SJuan76 they kind of did present their evidence when they gave a PowerPoint presentation and streamed it live on the internet (see link in my previous comment). Of course they did not provide things they didn't want to make public but most of the evidence seems to come from the operators' sloppiness. For example, leaving a lot of data (e.g. browser history) on their mobile devices (which they reused from previous missions).
    – JJJ
    Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 19:42

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .